Hunter-Gatherer Colonisation of Lithuania – Palaeoenvironmental & Archaeological Analysis

Lay summary authored by Felix Riede & Livija Ivanovaitė. Their full paper can be read in Open Quaternary:

Around 22,000 years ago, at the height of the last ice, northern Europe was entirely devoid of human populations. Archaeological evidence suggests that from 15,000 year ago, the environment warmed and glaciers retreated,  allowing people to once more explore higher latitudes. For the western Baltic region, this colonization sequence is pretty well established – at least in its rough outline – and consists of several migration pulses from a generally south-western trajectory, broadly coincident with the abrupt environmental changes of the Late Glacial period. In the eastern Baltic, traditional models would like to see the human colonization here as very much a parallel process to the one that unfolded further to the west. Yet, recent palaeoenvironmental research points towards considerable differences – leads and lags – between the environmental changes observed in the two regions. In addition, new thinking on archaeological taxonomies for this period has raised doubts with regard to just how robust our understanding of the Final Palaeolithic in the western Baltic actually is.

New research by a joint eastern-western Baltic team consisting of Lithuanian archaeologist Livija Ivanovaite and Danish archaeologist Felix Riede sheds new light on these thorny uncertainties. The team focused their efforts on reviewing, on the one hand, the available archaeological evidence and, on the other, recent palaeoenvironmental data for the two regions. Delving into the research history of the Lithuanian finds, their taphonomic integrity and how they have been interpreted by previous researchers reveals not only some fundamental disagreements between different schools of thought but also subtle interactions between recent political history in the Baltic region and the interpretation of these Final Palaeolithic artefacts. Importantly, this new research argues that the lithic material (Fig. 1) cannot unanimously be linked to specific cultures of the western Baltic, which opens up for alternative scenarios of when and from where these early colonists may have come.

Riede Fig 1

Fig 1. Candidate Final Palaeolithic stone tools from the territory of present-day Lithuania (image from Riede & Ivanovaitė 2018 under a CC-BY licence).

In parallel, the available palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests important differences between the two regions. By systematic ethnographic analogy, the pronounced changes in temperature and other climatic and environmental variables inferred from these data, are highly likely to have had an impact on whether, when and how Final Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers could operate in the eastern Baltic.

Overall, the conclusions of this new research are rather negative: The evidence is considered too fragmented and the archaeological material to poorly resolved to suggest detailed scenarios of this pioneer colonization process. The road ahead is clear, however: With regard to the archaeological evidence, new numerical dates should be obtained, new and ideally stratified archaeological sites must be found and alternative ways of classifying such artefacts using, for instance, replicable quantitative approaches should be discussed. With regard to the palaeoenvironment, more highly-resolved archives would, as always, help strengthen the emerging picture of regional Late Glacial environments and these should be interrogated for tephra isochrons so that we are able to directly compare palaeonevironmental changes along east-west and north-south transects.

The full paper can be read in Open Quaternary:

Riede, F. & Ivanovaitė, L., (2018). The Final Palaeolithic Hunter-Gatherer Colonisation of Lithuania in Light of Recent Palaeoenvironmental Research. Open Quaternary. 4(1), p.4. DOI:


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